As you can see from her photograph Natalie Ratray is a petite, pretty and lean young woman. Like me, you might assume that she’s always looked this way.
I asked Natalie if I could interview her as I think her struggles with body image, weight and self belief are typical for many of us. She worked though her struggles and recently entered her first bodybuilding competition. She set herself a goal that was way outside of her comfort zone. As a result she has completely changed the way she sees herself.
Neither she nor I are suggesting that you need to train for a body building competition, nor become lean, to change your body image. But we are suggesting that you can make changes and find a goal that will work for you. Change is possible for all of us and sometimes our own thoughts are our biggest barrier to achieving the results we want.
Natalie trains at the Forge Gym in Inverness, where I also train. In the post she refers to Gavin Laird who is her partner and also her trainer.
Natalie, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and what your circumstances are?
I’m 31 years young. I’m presently the Marketing Assistant at Eden Court Theatre. I have an eight year old daughter, Eve and Gavin is my partner.
You look great – have you always been healthy? Are you naturally lean?
No, not at all. I started to put on weight in my teens due to reaching for convenience food when busy. Dinner generally took the form of toast, pasta, something from the chippy, Chinese or McDonald’s. As I got older I started to suffer from depression, anxiety and I was in an unhealthy relationship. I turned to food and over eating for comfort.
When did you start training? What got you started?
In my mid 20s I’d periodically train. I’d do home workouts but I’d easily I’d slip back into hold habits and eat Malteasers instead of training! I had a mental breakdown aged 28 and I was signed off work with severe anxiety and depression. It was a pretty scary time and I felt the need to claim control of my life in some way. I chose exercise and nutrition over medication. I used exercise as a form of stress relief and diet as a way to claim control. I joined gym classes in an attempt to socialise and to work through my social anxiety.
That sounds like a positive way to manage your stress?
Yes it was – but when things got worse in my personal life my training took a dark turn. I’d do all my usual classes and then I’d do interval sprints on the treadmill. I suffered from really bad shin splints – to the point that my shins would swell up and bruise but this didn’t stop me. I’d run and run, no matter how bad the pain got.
Looking back I can see that this was unhealthy but at the time those sessions gave me the headspace and clarity to think about what was really at the bottom of my anxiety and depression. Shortly after that my husband and I separated…and I started using the rowing machine instead.
How did you manage to get into a healthier place with exercise and mindset?
I started training at the Forge Gym with Gavin. At this time I started to develop a healthier approach to training, gaining knowledge along the way. Gavin quickly identified my over-exercising obsession. His first instruction was to stop all the additional classes and interval training. We started to focus on strength training.
The aim was simple: increase deadlift and squat weights. For my diet I increased my calories and I was advised to keep most of my carbohydrates for after training and eat them in whatever form I fancied. This helped me to relax about training and diet and it give me space for my body and mind to heal.
So how did you get from that point to entering a bodybuilding competition?
Gavin suggested I do the body building show. A few immediate thoughts came to mind: ‘Is he having a laugh? Can I do this? I’ve got too many things wrong with my body to be able to compete. What if people laugh at me?’
What do you mean “too many things wrong with your body”?
I’ve never been lean. I have cellulite and the body of someone who’s a mother. I was so conscious of these things that I couldn’t ever face taking my daughter swimming – let alone stand up in front of hundreds of people in a two piece.
My body insecurities constantly played on my mind. My anxiety would rise when I’d look in the mirror. I saw these as body deformities that I couldn’t alter. I was so scared that I was inviting people to judge me – that they would compare my horrid appearance to those that those with “cover girl” bodies. All I could imagine was standing up there in my old form and people looking at me with disgust.
As you describe your difficulties it sounds absolutely remarkable that you were able to find the courage to enter the competition. Where did you find the courage? What helped you overcome all the voices of doubt in your head?
I found taking progress pictures helpful as I could compare my body in a more subjective manner. I slowly started to be able acknowledge the changes. I started to find parts of my body I liked.
I accepted the challenge in the knowledge that the biggest, hardest part of it all would be having to face my demons head on. I knew this was going to be an almost impossible undertaking… even up to the last millisecond as I placed my foot on that first step up to the stage, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. But, I needed to prove to myself that I am strong – that I am bigger than my phobias, I’m more than a set of circumstances or a medical diagnosis. I can be fearless and I can overcome anything!
Two things happened leading up to the moment I performed my T-walk in my warrior inspired costume. Gavin told me he was proud of me and as I waited to be called up, the girl behind me in the queue grabbed my hand and told me it was going to be ok.
What was the training for the show like?
Training for the show was a bit of a rollercoaster. I loved the routine of it all but sometimes I didn’t feel that my body was showing the results of the hard work I was putting in.
Bodybuilding is different to conventional weight loss training. It takes a long time. If you drop weight too fast you’ll start to lose muscle, drop weight too slowly and you risk not being lean enough on the day. It’s all very measured. Patience is required.
As my body started to respond, I started to love it more. The 6am cardio sessions weren’t my favourite part of the day, but a necessary part of the 3 weeks preceding the show. When I was tired, it was tough going – and I was tired a lot. I have a full time job, a child and training for 3hrs a day took it out of me.
What was the diet like?
The diet was fine. My meals were the same toward the end of prep – three weeks of fish and veg! But I resigned to the fact that this was what was necessary to become stage ready. This is not a sustainable way to train and diet – it was short term and what was needed to compete in this particular sport. I found towards the end my hunger started to subside. I was (and still am) eating every two – three hours.
I’m not going to say that I wasn’t craving biscuits, chocolate, pizza, pies and all the rest… but the need to be stage ready was greater.
There is an image from media that back stage the competitors could be really bitchy to each other – what was it really like?
Back stage there was a real sense of camaraderie. Athletes helped each other with their tans, giving each other pep talks, laughing, chatting, talking about post show meals, admiring each others costumes. You could sense that everyone was nervous. This nervousness seemed to unite everyone… no one wanted to see anyone feeling insecure. It was a great environment to be in.
Your costume was brilliant – it looked a bit different to the others. Can you say more about it?
The concept for a warrior style costume and rather punchy theme music came along fairly early. I felt that I needed to adopt some sort of alter ego to actually see me through being on stage.
Some people argue that body building is dangerous as it can cause competitors to develop eating disorders. What would you say to them?
I think it depends on the individual, their approach and experience. If they crash diet, over train and basically the whole journey is an unhealthy one, then I can see how coming out of show day that would lead to further unhealthy habits.
I’m lucky that I have a coach who monitors my foods, discusses my feelings about my body and clearly outlines what our goals are for this off season. He advises me that weight will go on but that that’s okay.
What has this experienced changed for you?
I’m proud of myself. I’ve never felt proud before. I faced my fears. I found a new courage. I’ve learned to love parts of myself. I have a new appreciation of how strong I am as a person. I feel I can be myself and I don’t fixate on how I think I come across to others. I genuinely believe that I can do anything I set my mind on… and if I fail, well that’s ok.
Do you think more women should enter body building competitions and if so why or why not?
I feel that if a woman wants to do bodybuilding… well then she should give it a go. If they want to compete… well then give that a go too.
Ultimately I feel that if anyone has something they want to try and they are fortunate enough to have a set of circumstances that offer them the opportunity then they should make steps to reach their goals. This could be entering a bodybuilding competition, taking up a new hobby, making new friends, changing something they are unhappy with or working up the body confidence to be able to take their kids to a public swimming baths.
Sometimes things can seem like a mammoth task and scary, but if we don’t try how will we ever know what potential lies within us.
What would you say to someone who felt like you before you started this journey – by this I don’t mean body building but the whole fitness and self acceptance journey?
It’s ok to invest time into yourself. It’s ok to do something for you. Ultimately a healthier, happier you impacts positively on those around you.
Thanks so much for your openness in sharing your story Natalie. A lot of what you say about being insecure about your body resonates with me and I am sure will do for many others reading this. Your ability to face your demons and your new found self belief is inspiring.